My Difficulty With Short Stories

Sure, I’ve had a few short stories published, but in reality I’m not an adept short-story writer. In fact, I find them curiously difficult to pin down. Limit me to a few characters and a moment in time, and my brain freezes.

A few weeks back, I came upon a quote by Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright:

I like living in a novel — there is great company in it for the few years it is in your head, and I feel a real sense of loss when I come to the end. Short stories are, for me, a more instinctive form. They come or they don’t come, and I don’t spend lots of time figuring them out.

Instinctive? By Jove, there’s my difficulty: I don’t have a short-story instinct. Which is to say that I don’t read enough of them. Some years ago I subscribed to The New Yorker magazine so that I’d at least read its short stories, but now I’m thinking the stories the magazine likes to print aren’t the kind I like to read (and therefore to write). So, that hasn’t been helpful. These days, I browse the magazine for its articles. (Wait, where have I heard that one before?)

Now I’m staring at five short-story collections that have been sitting on my nightstand for awhile.

I ought to read them.

Unfortunately, I seem to remember that in this post, I vowed to lower my nightstand piles by reading only nonfiction until further notice…The piles, alas, remain.



Success and Scrutiny

Novelist B– is a prolific writer and has much insight into the publishing world. A few years back he told me something that has stayed with me. He said that the more successful you are, the more people feel compelled to drag you down. (I hereby shatter B–‘s anonymity so that you can check out his websites: here and here.)

Literary award season just passed us by, and I read two items that reminded me of Bob’s observation. The first item concerned Dorris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here’s what I read on the Guardian Unlimited website:

In response to learning about Lessing’s win, a literary critic told the Associated Press that “although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable … fourth-rate science fiction.”

Ouch! We’re entitled to our opinions, but I wonder if this critic had ever thought to say such a miserable thing about Lessing’s prose before she won the Nobel Prize.

And then there was the article from the November 8th, 2007, issue of The New York Times entitled “Congratulations on the Book Award, and Welcome to the Scrutiny.” Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize — Great Britain’s top literary award — for The Gathering. Soon afterwards, she wrote an essay about a child’s abduction, and, boom, what happened then but that a few ogres trumped up one sentence from the essay thereby giving the impression that Enright blamed the parents for the crime.

I ask you, would anyone have bothered quoting Enright out of context and ripping her a new one if she hadn’t just won the Booker?

The sad part is that I’m not immune to scrutinizing my fellow novelists. In fact, yesterday my reading group met, and I along with four sassy lassies dumped on this month’s reading assignment. In a big way. We roasted that poor novelist alive.

As I finished my coffee and fingered up scone crumbs, and as the group’s conversation turned towards 40th birthday parties and housing prices, I couldn’t help feeling like a hypocrite even though the novel was ill-conceived, not to mention so boring that I set it aside for the previously mentioned chick-lit succubus murder mystery (sad indeed). I imagined some future reading group lambasting my literary baby.

When I mentioned my imaginings to the Sassy Lassies, they laughed. They could imagine it also. Yeesh, so it starts already, does it?